Posted by: scribe9 | November 1, 2009

Auckland Weekend

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Auckland CBD (downtown) from the Devonport ferry, Halloween 2009

We drove to Auckland for the weekend. Auckland’s not the capital, but it is The Big City—about the size of Portland. It’s about 100 miles from Whangarei on Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. Only the last 30 miles or so are freeway (well, there’s a short stretch of toll road—but you don’t stop to pay for it, you pay up to five days later by phone or online). The rest is two or three lanes up hill and down dale, like Highway 126 west of Veneta or the Wilson River Highway. Thank goodness for passing lanes, especially on the 7-10% grades.

On Friday, there was road work (some short stretches were down to gravel). The signs warning of flaggers had the same symbols as ours, but this being New Zealand, were much more polite: “Please stop on request.” (And the buses in Auckland apologize when they’re not in service.) On the other hand, one sign warned “Drink, Drive, Die in Ditch.”

We went through small towns where cafés are supplanting tea rooms, past forests full of tree ferns, and by pastures with sheep, cattle, horses, or any permutation of those. New Zealanders aren’t afraid of butterfat—they sell 6% milk—so there were plenty of Guernseys and Jerseys as well as Holsteins. (Holsteins yield what we think of as whole milk, with about 3.8% butterfat. When I was young, the local dairy sold Golden Guernsey milk, which was 5%, and Jersey milk is the richest). A few of the sheep had been dipped and were fluorescent pink.

We also saw a clearcut or two, and logging trucks as big as ours, but the logs had been bucked into about twenty-foot sections, and most seemed to have lost their bark already. One hillside had a building that housed a year-round skiing hill. It wasn’t very big—I supposed it’s intended mostly for lessons. The gas stations along the way included Caltex, which is Chevron; Mobil; and Gull. 

Auckland itself is reminiscent of Seattle—water, hills, streets packed into an isthmus, and an iconic observation tower. We stayed on the waterfront, some of which has been redeveloped like the Pearl since the America’s Cup was here about ten years ago. Along one street, I noticed a beat-up strip of concrete between buildings and sidewalks—it was the top of the old seawall, preserved when part of the harbor got filled in.

We went up on the highest hill—an old volcano, with a sacred Maori crater—and had great views all the way around; the air is astonishingly clear. A brass marker indicated the distance to various cities around the world. It’s ironic that London is the furthest from this bit of the Commonwealth, but that’s why the British call Australia and New Zealand the Antipodes (it’s a loose term; New Zealand is actually opposite Spain and North Africa, and Australia’s opposite the North Atlantic). If we weren’t on daylight time already, we’d be twelve hours behind Greenwich mean time.

How do Aucklanders keep in shape? Donning and doffing jackets and sunglasses. The weather changes about every ten minutes, since the city’s between a harbor on the Tasman Sea (sometimes referred to as “The Ditch,” as Australia’s on the other side of it) and one on the Pacific Ocean. We took a twelve-minute ferry ride to a cute little town on a peninsula, where one can ride in a wagon pulled by three Clydesdales. There’s an occasional Budweiser available here, but the vast majority of imported beers are from Europe, including Guinness (which is cheaper here than in Dublin, but I’d guess that’s true anywhere in the world except maybe Norway). Corona’s usually the sole North American offering.

Auckland’s a cosmopolitan city, with lots of Asians—Thais, Koreans, and Japanese in particular. In the CBD (Central Business District), as they call downtown, you can hardly walk a block without spotting a sushi bar. There are also expats from other bits of the former Empire; one of our waiters was from Belfast, and another was from Durban, South Africa. We ate in Thai and Belgian restaurants, and visited a British pub. Auckland has lots of new buildings, but also a fair number from before World War I. The part we saw looks prosperous, but this morning’s newspaper said it’s suffering more than the smaller towns from the downturn.

As I finish this, I can hear fireworks. Just as in my neighborhood in Portland before and for a few days after the Fourth of July, here in New Zealand there’s a bit of amateur pyrotechnics in the days around Guy Fawkes’ Night, Nov. 5. Never heard of him? He took part in a gunpowder plot 400 years ago. Need to know more? Go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes_Night

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